Humans want to put things into categories, to find patterns. No inherent problem there. As parents and caregivers, we have influence over how our kids learn to identify things. How to identify and describe people, for example.
As a cisgender (this means my social gender matches my body’s sex,) heterosexual, caucasian female, I have a responsibility to practice deliberate inclusivity. One area I focus on is educating myself and my kids about gender preferences and sexual identity of other people.
Sometimes, I trip over myself trying to say the right thing, but I would rather try hard, be respectful, and stumble occasionally than avoid the work because it can be confusing at times. I will probably trip over myself in this post, but I still want to share what I’m doing and start a conversation so I can learn from others. I’m always learning and am frequently humbled by how much learning I still have ahead of me.
There are a few main ways that I’m trying to avoid gender stereotypes, and redefine gender roles for my young kids as well as support transgender and non-binary people. My goal is to reinforce that everyone deserves respect and empathy, period. I encourage my kids to be respectful, curious, and appreciative when it comes to diversity in race and ethnicity, and I also want my kids to understand and respect gender identity. Gender and pronoun preferences are incredibly important.
Use non-gendered language
A big struggle for my partner and I has been avoiding the terms “he” or “guy” as so-called neutral terms. During play or reading books, it was often our go-to to say, “What should he do now?” or, “Let’s give this guy a hat,” and so on. Now we’ll say,
What should the bear/the person/the baby do now?
Let’s give them/this person a hat.
We use the nouns: people/person, kid/child, and pronouns: they/them in many situations we encounter. Even to my children, both born female, I avoid “girl” a lot of the time.
Wow, you are a creative kid!
Is just as easy to say as “…creative girl!” I refer to school peers as, “friends,” “kids,” or “classmates.”
It might seem subtle, and it is. I also understand that it might seem unnecessarily complex or silly to some too. But respect and acceptance are free to practice, and matter greatly. Gendered language is pervasive in many areas of our kids’ lives. With constant exposure, many of us learn what jobs, personality traits and more are “for boys” or “for girls.” Early on kids can start to internalize incorrect but widely accepted facts that boys are better at math or girls like pink. Or that someone has to be comfortable or identify with the sexual identity they were born with.
Use preferred pronouns
Someone was recently speaking to my daughter about a school friend and asked, “Are they a boy or a girl?” and my daughter scrunched up her face and said, “They’re a kid!” The gender of the child made absolutely no difference for the story. As is often the case in life. Whether or not someone is male or female doesn’t tell us if they are kind or funny or a supportive friend.
However, if the classmate in the story had a gender pronoun preference, I would support and encourage my child to use it.
That’s been a big thing for me to work through: encouraging myself and my kids to see other aspects of a person before gender, but also lovingly affirm those who have a gender and pronoun or terminology preference.
You may see (or use yourself!) pronouns in email signatures and on social media profiles. Because my gender identity has never been called into question, I haven’t felt the need to proclaim my preferred pronouns before now. I now include my preferred pronouns as a small act of solidarity with trans and non-binary people as well as helping to normalize the act of declaring pronoun preference. As an example:
My partner and I also don’t avoid conversations about sex and gender. We speak frankly about anatomy and teach our kids anatomical terms for body parts including vagina and penis. We will continue to explore adding age-appropriate information about non-binary and trans people as they get older and their vocabulary and understanding expands.
My kids love books. They love to read the same book over and over again. I want my children to know that we will love and accept them no matter what gender they identify with and no matter who they like or love. I want them to see and hear about all kinds of people so that they can be empowered and empathetic as they move through their lives. It might seem like a tall order but we can learn a lot from books, especially ones we read often, and definitely if we talk about them with our kids afterwards. If we want our kids to know that they can wear whatever color they like or become passionate about any subject or activity they want, showing them role models is one way to solidify this belief.
Here are a few picture books for younger kids featuring transgender, gender fluid and non-binary characters. These books are an excellent way to introduce concepts of self-awareness, self-love, acceptance, empathy and celebrating our individuality.
Check out these resources
I follow these resources and many more on social media. I enjoy reading and watching the news and information they share as it’s often coming from a perspective or source I hadn’t considered. The more we know as parents, the better we can model language and behavior in our daily life as well as specifically speaking to our kids about these subjects. These sites discuss all kinds of inclusivity, representation, and diversity with kids.
Talk to other parents and caregivers
I was on the bus from the Seattle airport to the car rentals when I struck up a conversation with someone wearing a baby in a carrier. She identified herself as a mom of two – one boy (she gestured to the seat next to her) and one girl (the baby). We chatted superficially for a moment or two about traveling with young kids and then she said something offhand which I can’t recall now that launched us into a fast-paced conversation about identifying genders with our kids. We agreed that it was important to help our kids learn that sex or gender doesn’t have to be the first thing we know or notice about someone. We also agreed that it takes tremendous effort as parents to stop ourselves from immediately saying “girl” or “man” instead of “kid” or “person.”
We were both validated and energized by that quick conversation. I encourage you to share what you’re working on with your kids with other parents you meet. Perhaps use one of the books you’ve read or are interested in reading as an ice breaker.
Through talking with my children, I’ve been radically re-educating myself. I feel free from something I didn’t even realize was holding me back.
I don’t have to waste brain power identifying the perceived sex (or sexual orientation, or anything else) of the person in front of us in line at the store just so I can tell my curious kids and my own curious mind. Using “person” and “they/them” is such a simple go-to. However, I also have confidence and conviction when I know that a certain person prefers a certain pronoun. I’m striving to be accepting and celebrate every person as they are. I’m listening and affirming those who ask for recognition as she/her, he/him, non-binary, they/them or all of the above.
In what ways are you learning about and teaching your children about gender and gender roles? Please share ideas, books and resources below!